|Plum Island, NY|
Description: Plum Island is the largest of three islands that extend from the North Fork of Long Island northeasterly into Long Island Sound. The geography of this area was created by a moraine that was pushed up when glaciers last covered the area, around 15,000 years ago. The earliest record of a European settler on the island dates from 1659, when one Samuel Wyllys bought Plum Island from Wyandanch, the senior chief of the four Indian tribes that controlled most of Long Island at the time. The recorded purchase price was “one coat, one barrel of biscuits and 100 fish-hooks.”
There was considerable friction between the white settlers and the natives over land transactions such as this, due to cultural differences. The Indians believed that land belonged to everybody, and it was not theirs to “sell” – in their view they were selling access rights for fishing and hunting to the Europeans. Further complications arose from arguments between Wyandanch and the chiefs of the three other Long Island tribes (all of whom were his brothers) over who had the right to “sell” Plum Island in the first place.
Things got even more complicated when the Town of Southold also bought Plum Island in 1665, from one of Wyandanch’s brothers. The town deeded shares of the island to each of its freemen, but in a curious twist, most of these men suddenly turned their shares over to a Captain John Youngs a mere two months later. There are many records of Captain Youngs buying and selling land throughout the area during the next several years, but no record of any further transactions involving Plum Island. The record grows murky at this point, but it apparently resolved itself in favor of Wyllys, most likely due to the death of Wyandanch’s three brothers, leaving him the undisputed chief of Long Island.
Plum Island was the site of the first battle between British and colonial troops during the Revolutionary War. Under orders from General George Washington, troops went ashore near the present site of the lighthouse with the goal of preventing livestock raids by the British. The British troops garrisoned on the island fired on them, and the colonial troops were forced to retreat across the water back to Oyster Ponds (known today as Orient Point).
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1868 records, “both the tower and keepers dwelling are in bad condition and should be rebuilt. The tower, built in 1827, leaks badly; the masonry is soft and crumbling; the lantern is of the old pattern and with small lights and large astragals, and it leaks badly. It is thought that the old buildings are not worth the money which would be required to put them in good order, and it is therefore proposed to rebuild them.”
Funds were soon allocated for a replacement, which went into operation in 1869. The new lighthouse consisted of a granite, two-story dwelling, with a a white cast-iron tower, capped by a black lantern room, attached to the front of the dwelling's pitched roof. The sixth-order Fresnel lens from the old lighthouse was transferred to the new one, and then upgraded to a fourth-order lens in 1897. The old keeper's dwelling remained standing until 1882.
Since the locations that required lighthouses also often had strategic military significance, a number of light stations found themselves with military bases as neighbors. A tradition developed that allowed lighthouse keepers to purchase food and supplies from the base commissaries to save them a longer trip to a more populated area. William Chapel became keeper at Plum Island in 1913 and was accustomed to buying his provisions at Fort Terry, located on Plum Island just east of the lighthouse. However, in 1916 Chapel was suddenly informed that he no longer had privileges at the military base. This forced him to take his small boat two miles over water to Orient Point, or sometimes all the way to New London, twelve miles across Long Island Sound. Other lighthouse keepers were similarly affected by the new rule, and the Lighthouse Board had to intervene on a case-by-case basis. Eventually, Chapel and most other keepers regained their access to the bases.
Fort Terry had little value following World War II, and the Army turned the property over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which now operates the Plum Island Animal Disease Center on the island. Coast Guard personnel were removed from Plum Island in 1978, and the lighthouse was replaced by a flashing white light mounted on a 14-foot-tall brick shed. The lighthouse was not maintained after its closure and soon fell into disrepair.
In 1994, the Fresnel lens and its clockwork mechanism were taken out of the tower and put on display at the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport.
Erosion of the bank in front of the station caused a generator house to fall into the water in 1997, and not long thereafter the lighthouse itself was at risk. In 2000, East End Lighthouses was formed to spearhead the restoration and reactivation of the Plum Island Lighthouse. The group has arranged for 15,000 tons of rocks to be brought to the island for the purpose of shoring up the bank and stopping further erosion. East End Lighthouses, now part of East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation, is working with the Department of Homeland Security, which now controls Plum Island, to restore the venerable lighthouse. The island is off limits to the public, so the lighthouse can only be seen from the water.
Located on the western end of Plum Island, roughly one-and-a-half miles from
Orient Point. The lighthouse is owned by the Department of Homeland Security. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Department of Homeland Security. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.